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Hearing the Boom

Can churches offer more to the retiring seniors in our midst?

There's no doubt that the 75 million baby boomers set to retire in the United States during the next three decades will have a great effect on our society. We have yet to experience the explosion of demands our aging population will require, including new models for senior living.

Churches dedicated to finding relevance both today and tomorrow should take note. They may offer meaningful answers to the challenging questions facing nearly every community around the country.

Today, retiring boomers will do so with more education, more financial independence, better overall health,and longer life expectancies than those of any previous generation. Many of today's seniors will spend as many years in retirement as they did in the work force. And many will want to remain in their homes, even at the expense of their health and well-being. Why? The alternative seems painfully worse, as we've seen through our own parents' and grandparents' experiences.

Our society typically rips seniors from their roots and daily routines just when their need for support—and a loving environment—reaches its pinnacle. They are removed from familiar surroundings: their home, their neighbors, their friends, their postman, their mechanic, their neighborhood bar, their supermarket clerk, and their church.

In the past, families normally cared for their own. Since the industrial revolution, though, families spread out, creating geographic separation that changed this reality. Several models of senior living emerged to fill the void. But in many cases, these facilities feature double-loaded corridors of wheelchair-bound adults, trapping perfect strangers in imperfect and seemingly inhumane circumstances at possibly the most vulnerable times in their lives. The result is several generations of alienated seniors.

As we look at the current landscape of traditional senior living, one thing appears certain—many of the 75 million baby boomers will reject any such scenario that warehouses them the same way.

The Church's Decision

Years ago, William Thomas, a humanitarian, gerontologist, and medical doctor, first said the bane of senior living is isolation, loneliness, and boredom. By providing models for purposeful living through the continuum of life, he suggested, we could fix much of what ailed seniors (learn more at edenalt.org, changingaging.org, and thegreenhouseproject.org).

While no one is predicting the demise of the continuing-care retirement communities that have been so popular in recent decades, what will mark the future of trends in senior living is choice. Choices include co-op senior living communities, college- and university-based senior living, new ideas for intergenerational living, "naturally occurring" senior-living communities, and others. Undoubtedly, boomers will redefine how seniors retire and do so in diverse ways.

Perhaps the local church can play a meaningful role. As churches continue to strive for relevance in a changing world, our need to nurture the important connections between people is at the very heart of why we meet as a church. Research reveals that unchurched people value greatly the places in our churches that promote connections between people, second only to worship space. Once our most basic human needs are met, our need for purposeful connections is one of the strongest drives of human behavior.

While the days of the local church physically operating at the center of the community probably are long past, the church campus still can operate as the central place where community needs are met, including those of an aging population. It isn't necessarily "care" ministry; it is active adult living. Neighborhoods formed through common bonds by people with like interests and needs might emerge on church campuses. Compassion then could take the form of active adult lifestyles and round-the-clock ministries, where the church and its people are connected organically, both there to serve the needs of the other. The church becomes not only relevant, but completely integrated as a lifestyle—not just a once-a-week event on Sundays—and the needs for purposeful living are fulfilled in as many ways as you can possibly conceive.

Consider the hundreds of billions of dollars in church property holdings, existing facilities, and infrastructure already in place. How might we optimize their use? Could there be a residential component on a church campus? Probably not every campus, of course, but ones that have the physical space, the desire, and the vision for this extension to their relevance.

For the campuses that have these things, plus the understanding and the organizational DNA to support it, there can be a mutually fulfilling and rewarding experience—an alternative model for senior living that both serves the church and appropriately elevates the status of our seniors and provides purposeful living through the continuum of life. If only we were to think creatively enough.

Pat Kase serves as Project Coordinator for Cogun, a church building, design, and construction firm that has completed more than 650 church building projects in 33 states. This article first appeared on BuildingForMinistry.com, a joint ministry of the Cornerstone Knowledge Network and Christianity Today International.

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